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A Wyoming energy strategy proposal: utility-scale solar

(Randy Montoya/FlickrCC)

By Dave Dodson, WyoFile

Last month I suggested that an “all-of-the-above” strategy for Wyoming’s energy economic development would lead us nowhere; if we try to do everything, we’ll accomplish nothing.

Focus is the key to success, and the state has an enormous opportunity with utility-scale solar projects, particularly in our struggling coal communities.

We have considerable land and skilled labor in places that could prove ideal for massive solar projects. To put this into perspective, the largest utility-scale project thus far in the U.S. is in northern Texas. Across 18,000 acres, the Sampson Solar Energy Project will produce enough energy to power 300,000 homes. More importantly, that project will create 600 jobs over the three-year construction phase. And 18,000 acres may seem like a lot of land, until one considers that it’s only about one-third the size of a typical Wyoming coal mine.

It’s also important to recognize that Campbell County is relatively remote and will have a difficult time attracting non-coal industries to make up for lost jobs. While solar won’t provide the type of long-term jobs that coal mining has, over the next five to 10 years, these large construction projects could offer jobs to hundreds of skilled workers and provide a desperately needed economic bridge for the community.

The county’s retiring mines are ideally suited for massive solar projects. Consider that constructing a solar farm involves large-scale grading of the land, something that is done anyway as operators retire and reclaim mines. With solar projects, teams of skilled electricians and construction workers are required to construct the frames, install the solar panels and build a powerplant to prepare the energy for transmission. Our greatest state asset is not the coal under the ground, but the thousands of skilled workers displaced as mines and operations close down.

Based on what assets electric utilities are retiring, coal is on an inescapable decline. In contrast, the fundamentals of solar are all going in the right direction. The construction cost of utility-scale projects has dropped by nearly 80% in just the last 10 years. During roughly that same time, the cost of storing electricity has dropped by 70%. Just as important, solar has strong political and public tailwinds. Two-thirds of Americans want the federal government to do more to reduce the effects of climate change, and three-quarters of our country want to see the country prioritize renewables over fossil fuels.

We need to be more like Texas, where I began my career in the energy industry at the worst possible time. Oil prices had plummeted from $85 a barrel to $35, and it seemed everyone was either bankrupt or knew someone who was. This was the turning point for the state and its leadership. They learned their lesson and aggressively diversified their economy – which included recognizing that they had a lot of land, wind, skilled labor and sunshine.

Contrast that with Wyoming, where some state legislators have tried to ban utility-scale solar projects under the absurd belief that doing so will “save coal.” That attitude has allowed states like Texas to laugh at us all the way to the bank.

Texans didn’t view renewables as a threat to their core oil and gas and coal industries, but instead as another way to create jobs and increase their tax base. With this mindset, Texas is likely to move into the No. 1 position for solar within the next five years. Talk about seizing opportunity — in only four years Texas will have expanded from 2 gigawatts of utility scale solar capacity to 15 gigawatts.

Admittedly, our sunshine is not as potent as states closer to the equator. But that disadvantage is less striking in the summer months when air conditioners run long and hard during the day. Furthermore, as the cost of solar continues to plunge, this disadvantage drops. North Carolina, for example, has created a solar boom with even less solar resource than Wyoming.

I’ve seen first-hand what happens to coal communities after the mines close. When the country’s demand for anthracite coal went away, so did the mines and the neighborhoods near my grandfather’s coal mines in Appalachia. I went to visit those communities, and all I found were outlines of once-vibrant small towns along the coal seams of the Appalachian Valley. That doesn’t need to happen to Gillette or Kemmerer. But to avoid that fate, we need a modern battle plan, and that strategy begins with finding immediate work for the families that have been the backbone of these communities.



WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.